Posts by: Matin Durrani

Adaptive optics in biology

By Matin Durrani

For centuries, astronomers looking up at the heavens through a telescope had a problem on their hands – the quality of their images depended on the strength and direction of the wind in the air. Trouble is, the Earth’s atmosphere isn’t uniform because its density – and thus its refractive index – varies from point to point as the wind blows. Result: distorted images.

Cover of Carl Kempf's Physics World Discovery ebook Adaptive Optics in Biology

Carl Kempf’s new short-form Physics World Discovery ebook is free to read

In 1953, however, astronomer Horace Babcock proposed a clever solution, which was to bounce incoming light off a device that can rapidly correct for changes in optical path-length, which flattens the wave-front and so counteracts the effects of aberration. Any remaining wave-front errors are measured after the correction, before a feedback control loop uses the measurement to continuously adjust the corrections applied to the wave-front.

That was the principle behind “adaptive-optics” technology, which has since gone on to become a routine and invaluable part of astronomy. Turns out, however, that the same principles can be used in microscopy too, leading to many applications of adaptive optics in medicine and biology too, as I’ve discovered by commissioning and editing a new short-form Physics World Discovery ebook by Carl Kempf.

Kempf is a senior systems engineer at the California-based firm Iris AO, Inc, which is heavily into adaptive-optics technology, having worked on sensing, actuation, and control systems for high-precision devices for more than 30 years. I’m pleased to say that Kempf’s short ebook, Adaptive Optics in Biology, is now available for you to read free in EPUB, Kindle and PDF format via this link.

To give you some more idea of what the book is about and his career to date, I put some questions to Kempf, which you can read below. Don’t forget either that there are plenty of other books in the Physics World Discovery series, ranging from multimessenger astronomy to quantitative finance.

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Discover why the philosophy of physics is vital

Cover of Robert P Crease's Physics World Discovery ebook "Philosophy of Physics"

Think about it: Robert P Crease’s new short-form Physics World Discovery ebook is now available to read for free

By Matin Durrani

Avid readers of Physics World will know that we have for many years published a monthly column called “Critical Point” written by Robert P Crease, a historian and philosopher of science from Stony Brook University in New York, in which he examines the interface between physics and the wider culture.

I’ve always felt Crease’s work is interesting but I’m aware that many physicists scoff at the notion of philosophers trying to understand how science works. It’s a waste of time, right?

Following a meal at a vegetarian restaurant round the corner from his apartment in Manhattan earlier this year, I managed to persuade Crease to write one of our new, short-form ebooks that go under the the Physics World Discovery banner. My challenge was for him to explain to physicists just what it is philosophers of physics do – and why their work is important.

You can read Crease’s book Philosophy of Physics, which has just been published, for free in either epub, Kindle or PDF formats via this link. To whet your appetite, Crease has answered some questions about his approach to philosophy and why the book is worth reading. Don’t forget there are plenty of other books in the Physics World Discovery series, ranging from multimessenger astronomy to quantitative finance.

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Applied physics and Japan’s ageing population

Satoshi Kawata from Osaka University

Keeping giong: Satoshi Kawata from Osaka University remains active despite having just officially retired. (Courtesy: Matin Durrani)

By Matin Durrani in Osaka, Japan

By most measures, Japan is one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Depending on which criterion you use, it’s either the third or fourth biggest economy on the planet. Much of that success is built on the country’s prowess in science and technology, which have supported numerous hi-tech giants of the corporate world.

Still, not everything is rosy in the Japanese garden. After the post-war boom years, the economy began to slump in the early 1990s and has picked up only slowly since then. To make matters worse, Japan has also had to contend with rising social-security costs to support an ageing population. Plummeting birth rates and steadily rising death ages mean that Japan’s population has fallen by just over 1% since 2010 to 126 million.

I was thinking about such matters yesterday as I walked through a shopping mall in central Osaka on my way to meet applied physicist Satoshi Kawata from the University of Osaka. Okay, it was a weekday lunchtime and this is just one data point, but there sure were lots of pensioners out shopping. I was also surprised to see a guy selling The Big Issue – the magazine that supports homeless people who want to make a living. I’d not seen any inkling of poverty in the country up to that point.

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When will Japan get its next physics Nobel prize?

Photo of Hikaru Kawamura at the University of Osaka

Thirteen and counting: Hikaru Kawamura wonders when Japan will get its next Nobel Prize for Physics.

By Matin Durrani in Osaka, Japan

Hikaru Kawamura, president of the Physical Society of Japan (JPS), handed me a brochure as we sat down in his office on the fifth floor of the Department of Earth and Space Science at Osaka University. Inside it were photographs of the 13 Japanese physicists who have won the Nobel Prize for Physics.

It’s an impressive list of people, starting with Hideki Yukawa, who won the 1949 prize for his theory of the nuclear force, and going all the way up to Takaaki Kajita who shared the 2015 prize for detecting atmospheric neutrino oscillations at the Super-Kamiokande underground lab. (They’re all men, of course, but that’s another story.)

However, Kawamura admitted to me during our 90-minute discussion, that he is “not optimistic” that Japan will be as prolific in terms of Nobel prizes in the future. Most Nobel laureates usually (though admittedly not always) win their awards for work done 20-30 years ago. So with Japanese physics these days being, as Kawamura puts it, “not so popular as it used to be”, how long will Japan have to wait for its next physics Nobel prize?

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How to get your paper noticed

Poster at TokyoTech on "Science communicaton in a digital age"

How to get noticed; the poster for today’s seminar at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

By Matin Durrani in Tokyo, Japan

For physicists, doing research is only the start of the game. With thousands of papers published each year, how do you make sure your latest work stands out from the crowd?

If you’re an established academic, your peers will already know who you are and, provided you can continue getting your papers published in the top journals, your career will carry on hitting the high notes . But if you’re less experienced in the research game, then a good dose of publicity in the mainstream media can give you a great head start – and thankfully the online world can help hugely.

That was the message of a seminar “Science communication in the digital age” given today at Tokyo Institute of Technology by me and my IOP Publishing colleagues Michael Banks (Physics World news editor) and Elaine Tham (associate director for Asia-Pacific). Attended by about 40 students, science communicators and university administrators, the seminar was opened by the president of Tokyo Tech Yoshinao Mishima.

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RIKEN celebrates its centenary

Liquid-helium tanks used to cool the magnets at RIKEN's accelerators in its Radioactive Ion Beam Facility

Cool stuff: these liquid-helium tanks are used to chill the superconducting magnets at RIKEN’s accelerators in its Radioactive Ion Beam Facility. (Courtesy: Matin Durrani)

By Matin Durrani in Wako, Japan

It’s funny where chance encounters can lead.

Earlier this year, I was at a reception for science journalists at the Fenway Park baseball stadium in Boston, US, when I bumped into Jens Wilkinson, who works in the communications team at RIKEN – one of Japan’s biggest research institutions. He encouraged me to visit the lab, which was founded 100 years ago, should I ever find myself in Japan.

And so here I was at RIKEN’s headquarters in Wako, just north of Tokyo, on day two of my trip to gather material for the upcoming Physics World special report on Japan. Wako is home to the largest of RIKEN’s seven campuses, which together employ almost 2000 researchers.

Apart from celebrating its centenary this year, which included an event in downtown Tokyo with none other than Emperor Akihito, RIKEN has been in the news for its discovery of element 113. Created at the RIKEN Nishina Center for Accelerator-Based Sciemce by smashing zinc nuclei into a bismuth target, the element was last year officially named “nihonium” (Nh).

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Why money is tight for Japanese science

 

Yashimo Iye, an executive director of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science in Tokyo on 6 November 2017

Money matters: Yasuhiro Iye is an executive director of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. (Courtesy: Matin Durrani)

By Matin Durrani in Tokyo, Japan

“Budget.”

That was the one-word answer from Yasuhiro Iye, when I asked him what was the most important thing on his mind as executive director of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS).

The society, which was founded in 1932, is responsible for funding researchers in Japan across all sectors of science, engineering and humanities. In 2015 the JSPS distributed about ¥260bn (about $2.27bn) in grants, which are awarded competitively through a rigorous peer-review process, with physicists receiving roughly 15% of the total.

It might sound a lot of money, but as Iye points out, the JSPS’s total budget has been pretty static in recent years. Money for science, Iye admits, is not as generous in Japan as in the past, which he blames on rising social-security costs to deal with the growing number of old people. “The Japanese government budget is constrained by the cost of an ageing society,” Iye says.

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Under the sea: the November 2017 issue of Physics World is now out

PWNov17cover-500By Matin Durrani

Physicists love a challenge. Some have experiments up in space, while others work deep underground or at the tops of mountains. But just imagine how hard it must be for the those physicists who do experiments at sea.

The November 2017 issue of Physics World, which is now out in print and digital format, examines some of the challenges for physicists working below the waterline.

Jon Willis describes his experience on the exploration ship Nautilus in the Pacific Ocean, looking for mineral-rich “black smokers” that support life in conditions mimicking those on Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. Helen Czerski reveals why her studies of bubbles could help those who model climate change, while Antoine Kouchner and Véronique Van Elewyck explain why and how researchers are using the ocean as a giant neutrino detector.

Remember that if you’re a member of the Institute of Physics, you can read the whole of Physics World magazine every month via our digital apps for iOSAndroid and Web browsers.

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A rockin’ good milkshake, a telescope that wants to be the next Taj Mahal

The Rock-Music Milk Shake Mixer uses sounds waves to create a milkshake, which is to be launched at the 2018 Big Bang Fair in Birmingham, UK

Sounds tasty: the Rock Music Milkshake Mixer uses sound waves to create a milkshake.

By Matin Durrani and Hamish Johnston

Film fans will well remember the opening scene from Back to the Future, in which Marty McFly (played by Michael J Fox) is thrown across a room by a massive sound wave from an enormous guitar amp. It’s more science fiction than science fact, but to illustrate the impact that sound can have on everyday life, staff at EngineeringUK have come up with something really rather clever. To drum up interest in next year’s science-careers show The Big Bang Fair, which is to be held in March in Birmingham, UK, they’ve built what they dub a “Rock Music Milkshake Mixer”.

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A tenner in space, why just 0.3% of LIGO bagged the Nobel, sounding-off in Havana

Tenner, nine, eight...: Mary Sommerville has lifted off (Courtesy: RBS)

Tenner, nine, eight…: Mary Sommerville has lifted off (Courtesy: RBS)

By Hamish Johnston and Matin Durrani

Primary school children in Scotland have celebrated the launch of a new £10 note by launching it into space. Well, sort of. The Royal Bank of Scotland note was actually sent aloft on a high-altitude balloon with a camera to capture the event for posterity.

If you know your astronomers, you will recognize Mary Sommerville on the tenner. She was active in the early 19th century and famously predicted the existence of Neptune by its influence on the orbit of Uranus. She and Caroline Herschel were the first women to be members of the Royal Astronomical Society and she also wrote the bestselling science book On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences.

There is much more about Sommerville in our podcast “Mary, Queen of Scottish banknotes“.

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